Poachers kill 81 elephants in Zimbabwe

Harare, Sep 23 (IANS) Zimbabwe's government said Monday that a "poaching syndicate" has killed at least 81 elephants and an unknown number of buffaloes and kudus (a type of antelope) by poisoning in the country's largest national park.

Six suspects were arrested two weeks ago but the scale of the cyanide poisoning has only gradually unfolded as more elephant carcasses were discovered in the sprawling Hwange National Park, Xinhua reported.

Authorities Monday warned "huge spiral effects" as primary predators like lions, vultures and others that feed on the contaminated elephant carcasses would be poisoned as well.

Police revealed that the syndicate, led by a South African businessman, mixed a combination of cyanide, salt and water and poured the cocktail into about 35 salt licks at watering holes known to be frequented by elephants.

At other watering holes, the poachers would dig holes and place containers of the deadly mixture in the holes.

Zimbabwe's newly appointed Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Savior Kasukuwere declared a "war" against poaching.

"We declare zero tolerance to poaching. We must put a stop to this. We cannot continue with this nonsense," state media quoted Kasukuwere as saying after he went to inspect the ecological impact of the poisoning - his second trip in a week.

Tourism and Hospitality Minister Walter Mzembi, who accompanied Kasukuwere to Hwange, described the poisoning as a case of "murder" of Zimbabwe's wildlife and pledged to take the fight to international source markets.

Hwange, spanning 14,651 square kilometers, is home to about 50,000 African elephants.

Over the years, the elephant population in Africa has been rapidly declining due to rampant poaching. Zimbabwe is among the few countries, mostly in southern Africa, that still have a significant number of elephants.

The Zimbabwean government allows ivory trade in the domestic market but puts strong restrictions on export of ivory products.

The country's law provides a maximum of 11 years in prison for people convicted of poaching.

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